Updated: April 16, 2013 at 12:00 am
Nearly 20 years after the rape and murder of a mentally disabled Colorado Springs woman, DNA solved the mystery of who killed her, authorities alleged during opening statements at a murder trial.
But will it be enough to win a conviction?
Attorneys on Tuesday squared off over the quality and conclusiveness of evidence linking Jose Burciaga-Ruiz to the previously unsolved slaying of Sharon Lee Sklavos, whose savaged body was discovered in the foothills overlooking Colorado Springs in July 1994, more than a week after her disappearance.
To prosecutors, DNA analysis by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation — completed in 2012 with technology that wasn’t available at the time of Sklavos’ killing — proves that Burciaga-Ruiz’s semen was inside the victim.
A Mexican-born construction worker who was dating Sklavos’ aunt at the time of the woman’s disappearance, the defendant told Colorado Springs police he passed out drunk that night and didn’t see her, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys countered the DNA analysis actually found a “mixture” of bodily fluids they say points to possible involvement by other men — one known to police, the other unidentified.
“Please pay close attention to this testimony,” public defender Charlotte Ankeny said in her opening statements after offering a preview of a CBI agent’s test results. “This case revolves around DNA.”
A jury of seven men and seven women — including two alternates — is expected to render its verdict at the end of a three-week trial in 4th Judicial District Court. Charged with first-degree murder and sexual assault, Burciaga-Ruiz, 58, faces life in prison without parole if convicted.
Relatives say that Sklavos, 38, was left mentally disabled by a breakdown suffered after her husband of eight years shot himself in front of her. Defense attorneys say heroin addiction and alcoholism contributed to her mental deterioration.
She disappeared July 22, 1994, from her sister’s house on Kincannon Road, where she lived. Her partially nude body was discovered nine days later in a litter-strewn patch of woods near Lower Gold Camp Road and High Drive, and police said her attacker or attackers left a stick lodged inside her genitals.
Burciaga-Ruiz was among those questioned by police after the shocking crime, along with Rafael Balderrama, a friend he claimed had stopped by Sklavos’ house on the morning of her disappearance.
Both men denied involvement and agreed to submit biological samples as part of the investigation, according to attorneys’ opening statements.
But without conclusive evidence, the case went cold — until Colorado Springs police submitted evidence for retesting with the help of a federal grant and came back with what they characterized as a conclusive link in the case.
Prosecutor Deborah Pearson told jurors they will hear from a woman who says Burciaga-Ruiz and Balderrama each claimed responsibility for raping a “crazy girl,” though they argued over who was responsible for the killing.
The case spawned another tragedy in Colorado Springs after Sklavos’ death when two men tried to exact revenge on Balderrama, whom they blamed, and ended up killing a bystander.
Edward Raymond Rubio, the husband of one of Sklavos’ nieces, and Christopher Kinney are serving 32 years in prison for killing 25-year-old Marcos Hernandez-Castillo. Balderrama was wounded in the leg during the attack. They pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and blamed each other for pulling the trigger.
Balderrama is wanted on suspicion of first-degree murder in a 2001 drug-murder investigated by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
Police were told he fled to Mexico and might be dead, according to testimony at Burciaga-Ruiz’s June preliminary hearing, though it’s unclear whether those reports have been confirmed.
Fourth Judicial District Judge Michael McHenry ruled Tuesday that attorneys may not address the unrelated murder case after prosecutors argued it wasn’t relevant and would be prejudicial to their case against Burciaga-Ruiz.
The trial is expected to continue Wednesday morning.
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
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